- Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern that can cause feelings of self-doubt or fear of being exposed as a fraud.
- Research shows that 70% of the population will experience imposter-type feelings at some point during their lives.
- Asking for feedback can help provide a confidence boost when imposter-type feelings strike.
- Beating imposter syndrome can be as straightforward as reframing your thoughts.
Imposter syndrome can plague even the most experienced professional with feelings of self-doubt or fear of being exposed as a fraud. Haven’t heard of the phenomenon yet?
A review article published by the International Journal of Behavioral Science showed that an estimated 70% of the population will experience imposter feelings at some point during their lives.
We talked to a handful of successful people in different careers to learn how anyone can push past feelings of being undeserving.
Feeling like you don’t belong can cause self-doubt and fear but understanding and mastering your fear may help you take control of it.
External factors may be a contributor to imposter-like feelings. Valerie Young, author of “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women,” told TIME magazine that a sense of belonging helps foster confidence. “The more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, the fewer people who look or sound like you, it can and does for many people impact their confidence.”
Arianna Huffington of Thrive Global told us that she understands this first-hand while remembering how she first felt when speaking at Cambridge University with her thick Greek accent.
"I'd been obsessed with going to Cambridge even before I'd learned English, and my mother had somehow helped make it happen from our one-bedroom apartment in Athens," she shared.
"I felt like there I finally was, but the minute I opened my mouth, people would know I didn't really belong."
Huffington said that pushing past her feelings of being an imposter called for accepting her accent, rather than trying to hide it. "My mother taught me that fearlessness isn't the absence of fear, but the mastery of it. I leaned into my fear by trying to get into the Cambridge Union (the debating society,) where I eventually became the first foreign president," she explained.
"What I learned was that what you have to say is more important than how you sound, which is to say that that feeling that we don't belong is much more likely to come from us - from that obnoxious roommate inside our heads - than it is from someone else (who is likely dealing with their own forms of imposter syndrome).
In other cases, receiving positive feedback can give you a confidence boost.
Experts also theorize that feelings of being a fraud, or imposter syndrome, may stem from personality traits, behavioral causes, or even early memories. It could be as simple as a report card that wasn't "good enough" or being stuck in a high-achieving sibling's shadow. "People often internalize these ideas: that in order to be loved or be lovable, 'I need to achieve'. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle," psychologist Aubrey Ervin explained to TIME magazine.
Angela "Merk" Nguyen produces and co-hosts the popular podcast Adult ISH for YR Media. She told us that her imposter syndrome made it impossible to shake feelings of doubt and disappointment, despite successfully landing her dream job in New York City.
"My imposter syndrome felt a lot like a deceitful little red devil with horns was drowning out the voice of my confident, uplifting angel. I felt like I was constantly letting down my senior producers, and I would think things like: 'Why am I such a failure?' 'They probably only hired me because I'm Asian' or 'I could've done way better on that last project but I didn't - shame on me.'"
For Nguyen, asking for feedback was the game-changer. "I asked both of my bosses how they thought I was performing," she noted. "They told me my work was impressive, high quality, and 'not half-assed if that's what you're thinking.' Talk about a wake-up call! I'd say that along with positive reminders of my abilities and accomplishments from my support system, I've grown to see myself for what I truly am: a smart, talented individual who is 100% deserving to be where she's at."
To overcome imposter syndrome, learn to see your unique value.
Young noted that "experts" feel like they need to have all of the information when starting a project and constantly look for ways to improve their skills.
Are you the type of person who feels hesitant to speak up in a meeting for fear of looking unintelligent, or are you afraid to apply for a job if you don't have every ability listed in the posting? If so, it might be a relief to realize that you still have valuable insights to share.
Barri Rafferty, partner, president, and CEO at global communications firm Ketchum, told INSIDER she was plagued by imposter syndrome while speaking on a topic she was simply familiar with, rather than a deep expert about.
"I regularly consult with clients and speak in front of large audiences, but I found myself battling with impostor syndrome the first time I was asked to speak at an event at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The event was focused on the future of artificial intelligence and featured subject-matter experts like the director of MIT's Media Lab and the CIO of IBM, so I felt wildly uninformed by comparison," Rafferty admitted. "I'm not a technology expert, I didn't go to an Ivy League School, and I didn't literally write the book on A.I., as my counterparts did."
Overcoming her fear meant that Rafferty had to realize what she could add to the conversation - a fresh perspective.
"Though I'm not steeped in the tech world, what I did bring to the conversation was the fresh perspective of someone with broad horizontal experience who could discuss best practices from across many industries," she explained. "Even more, I saw that my experience in storytelling and marketing helped me communicate in a way that resonated with the audience. I could be more relatable and memorable by speaking from experience instead of theory. By bringing a different perspective, I added value to the conversation in a way the other panelists couldn't."
You can also reframe your thoughts to take on a new challenge.
Miles Pepper, president, and co-founder of Final Straw, quit his full-time job as a cinematographer and borrowed $30,000 from his parents to reinvent the drinking straw. He told us that while he and his business partner Emma Cohen put their heads down to hone their product and pitch and launch a viral Kickstarter Campaign, feelings of self-doubt set in when the two realized they had actually sold a jaw-dropping 200,000 straws that he felt "we didn't really know how to make."
"Instantly, we went from having a prototype straw to having nearly 40,000 people waiting for us to deliver… I felt like the biggest imposter ever," Pepper confessed. "I had no idea what I was doing."
Stepping into his well-deserved new position and taking action helped his frightening feelings fade. "I realized that I could be the world's leading expert in folding drinking straw technology. Who would have guessed? From that moment on, I owned the new role I created for myself. Today, we run a multi-million dollar business while making an incredibly fun product," he beamed.
Pepper's approach works because it's psychologically sound - Young said that reframing your thoughts can help imposter syndrome sufferers tackle a new challenge or overcome an obstacle that causes doubt. "People who don't feel like impostors are no more intelligent or competent or capable than the rest of us. It's very good news because it means we just have to learn to think like non-impostors," she told TIME magazine.